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Oakland at Work: Oakland School for the Arts

on December 11, 2015

A hum and chatter reverberates against the clean walls of a 90-year-old hallway above Oakland’s historic Fox Theatre. This is home for the Oakland School for the Arts, a charter school established in 2002. It’s Friday afternoon and the middle school students are giddy with anticipation.

Two harmonious bells chime, signaling the day’s end.

“We always have different bells that we play for the kids,” said executive and artistic director Donn Harris. “That’s a nice one. It’s got a kind of electronica feel to it. I’m not sure which of the students picked it. But it may be good to change it up now. Time for a new chime.”

Harris has been executive director for the charter school since 2007, when he was appointed by Governor Jerry Brown, then mayor of Oakland. An actor and performer for most of his adult life, and later a school administrator in San Francisco, he seemed like the perfect fit.

It’s late in the afternoon. The winter sun is setting and the middle schoolers run to greet the weekend. But high school is still in session for another hour, as the artists-in-training practice their chosen disciplines with rigor.

A distant violin echoes faintly from the floor above. At the top of the stairs sits a young woman, facing out over the stairwell. Huddled close by are a couple of friends who seem enraptured.

“Yes, Catilin! Give a show, give a show. Don’t be shy,” said a young lady, not more than 14, with a lilting English accent. With her friends cheering her on, the violinist plays a classical piece at an incredible pace—what music defines as allegro.

Upstairs, students litter the halls, strumming their guitars like they’re at New York City’s famed Chelsea Hotel. Harris stops to engage with them, happy to discuss what’s on their minds, from that night’s upcoming concert to the seriousness of California’s drought.

There are almost 750 students, and Harris appears to have a rapport with all of them and their parents. Never wasting an opportunity to check in, at one point Harris stops to evaluate an art installation that’s underway. A few parents of visual arts students are helping to hang pictures. Within each frame is a student’s conceptual interpretation of an article from the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Behind another classroom door, theatre students are mid-scene, their voices resonant.

“I’m sure we can get used to each other. If you don’t talk, make very little noise and don’t move around much. If you don’t mind me suggesting it, we should maintain the greatest politeness towards each other,” came the voice of a high schooler, delivering her lines with a maturity the belies her age.

In other classrooms, music blasts as dancers rehearse and vocalists harmonize. But some rooms are quiet. Inside sit visual artists deep in thought, toiling over their work.


  1. Jaw on December 12, 2015 at 6:15 pm

    Digital Media students produce the annual Universal Declaration of Human Rights posters, not Visual Art students.

  2. Nicolette Sommer on December 13, 2015 at 3:44 pm

    My favorite school ever!

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